January 31, 2013

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Clinton Walston was sitting in one of his favorite waterfowl hunting areas on Lake Guntersville this past season when a duck came whistling past.

What was thought to be just one of the 20 or so species that visit the Tennessee River chain in Alabama each year turned out to be a very special duck, at least in Walston’s hunting history.

“A few of my buddies and I were hunting this island I’ve hunted for a few years, but the action was a little slow,” said Walston, who said he tries to hunt every week he possibly can during the season. “There weren’t enough people hunting to keep the ducks moving. So we decided to move and went to a place called Grider’s Slough to look for some diver ducks, but they hadn’t moved in, yet. We talked about what to do and we decided to go to Jones’ Cove to see what was up there.

“I’ve got a mud motor so I went up the back way where people running outboard can’t get. I came up through the back of the slough, looking for a spot. There were a couple of groups of hunters about 300 yards apart, so I shut the motor off and pulled up on the bank. After we pulled up on the bank, a bird came flying by. I had my gun in my hands, so I just threw up and shot and knocked it down.”

The bird, which turned out to be a lesser scaup (aka bluebill) wasn’t completely finished and starting diving to try to evade Walston. This happened a couple of times until he picked the right spot to stop the boat. The duck surfaced within gun range and Walston finished the job.

“I cut the motor off where the duck had gone under and waited,” he said. “He finally popped up about 35 yards away and I shot him. I went over and picked him up.

“At first I didn’t realize he had a band. I picked him up by the wing and only his right leg was showing. I dropped him in the boat and I got a feeling I had better look at that bird a little closer. I picked him up again and saw the band. I was ecstatic. It was a true federal band. There was a lot of whooping and hollering. I was flopping in the boat like a fish out of water. You’d have thought I was in there passing a gall stone.”

The variety of ducks encountered by waterfowl hunters in north Alabama includes mallards, pintails, black ducks, wigeons, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, scaup, canvasbacks, buffleheads, ruddy ducks, ringnecks, gadwalls and wood ducks.

“Diver ducks are notorious for Guntersville and Scottsboro,” Walston said. “Your puddle ducks like mallards will mainly stick to the sloughs and backwaters. In that open water, it won’t hold a lot of big ducks. If they get pressured, they’ll get out there in the middle of the lake at night and eat hydrilla. But you don’t see them hardly ever out there during the day.”

Walston kept his prized scaup near him the rest of the trip. “I didn’t let it get out of my sight,” he said.

When Walston had a chance, he called the number printed on the band to report the harvested duck.

“When I talked to the lady about the band she said, ‘Read those numbers back to me,’” he said. “I thought that was unusual. She said that duck came from Minto, Alaska. I thought it might have been a far-off band because it was a diver, but I’m thinking some place like Michigan or Ontario. In my wildest dreams, I never thought that duck could have come from a few hundred miles from Russia.”

The scaup was banded at the Minto Flats State Wildlife Refuge between Minto and Nenana, Alaska. The 500,000-acre refuge is about 35 miles west of Fairbanks, where the bander resides. Dr. Mark Lindberg of the University of Alaska banded the bird on May 21, 2010. According to the U.S. Department of Interior, only 114 bands from scaup have been recovered in Alabama since the bluebill banding started in 1960. Of course, the number of bluebills banded pales in comparison to America’s most common duck, the mallard, of which more than seven million have been banded since 1914. About one million of the mallard bands have been recovered. According to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, 6,108 mallard bands have been recovered in Alabama since 1960.

“When I told my buddies where it came from, they said, ‘There ain’t no way,’” Walston said. “My buddy Jason, the one I hunt with the most said, ‘Man, that thing must have had grease fittings on its wings to fly that far.’ It blows my mind that that duck flew across several flyways and didn’t get shot. I’m sure it got shot at by a lot better hunters than me. He just happened to give up the ghost that day.”

While it does “blow the minds” of most people, waterfowl biologists know that waterfowl can migrate unbelievable distances from the breeding grounds to their wintering grounds. Pintails and several species of geese are known for migrating 3,000 miles during a season.

One example of how far and fast a pintail can fly is illustrated by one of the species harvested by my hunting buddy Jay Gunn, who shot the pintail at Miller’s Ferry in central Alabama. The duck had been banded three days earlier in Wisconsin.

David Hayden, waterfowl specialist with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife Section, said that while Walston’s scaup is special, it doesn’t set a record.

“We’ve had a few birds in Alabama that have come from parts of Siberia,” Hayden said. “Most of the birds we get come from Canada. Some teal will migrate from Canada all the way to South America. Mallards don’t usually migrate that far. They’ll migrate from southern Canada or the northern U.S. to the South. A lot of them just migrate as far as the freeze line, and we haven’t had much cold weather in Alabama this year.”

Hayden doesn’t downplay the importance of Walston’s band recovery at all.

“That’s a pretty good prize to get a scaup coming out of Alaska,” Hayden said. “Most of the scaup that come from Alaska tend to stay west of Alabama. Most of the Mississippi Flyway scaup come from the middle of Canada.

“With a bird like that scaup, it may have gotten into some fairly strong westerly winds. I remember about 15 years ago, and it happened two years in a row, when the snows and blues (geese) were migrating there were very strong westerly winds. It actually blew them into Alabama, Georgia and Florida instead of them going into Louisiana like they normally would. That scaup may have gotten blown off course somewhere.”

As for Walston’s bluebill, one of his buddies consumed the bird.

“After I shot the duck the second time, it wasn’t suitable for mounting,” he said. “It’s still like a dream. I had always wanted to kill a banded duck. I keep that band close. I like to rub it every once in a while.”

PHOTOS: (Scaup Courtesy of USFWS; Cary Hearn) Lesser scaup, also known as bluebills, will migrate thousands of miles each year from the breeding grounds to winter habitat, although the diver duck usually doesn’t cross numerous flyways on the way. Clinton Walston of Fyffe, Ala., bagged a banded bluebill in December on Lake Guntersville that was banded near Minto, Alaska.